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A History of Egypt
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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title: A History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest
author: James Henry Breasted
publisher: Bantam Books
year of publication: 1905
reviewed date: June 26, 2008
format: paperback
Amazon.com: A History of Egypt

Anyone interested in the human species and its civilization will want to know how things got started. Egypt, specifically the Nile river valley, plays a central role in the development of civilization. Breasted's history of ancient Egypt was once the accepted standard of scholarship on the subject. Today's serious student will find that more recent archeologists and historians find many of Breasted's details to be incorrect, or interpret them differently. On the other hand in another century more corrections, or differences of opinion, are certain to come in. Breasted makes a good, detailed, readable introduction to the ancient Egyptian civilization.

I was struck by how little social organization has changed from 4000 years ago. The Egyptians could undertake massive projects, for good or ill or for silly religious reasons, despite having a population that was a fraction of most modern nations. At times ethics was raised to a high level. Almost all the religious ideas that would be woven into the various religions that survive - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and even Atheism - can be found in ancient writings that somehow survived the ravages of millennia.

One realizes that Israel, in ancient times, was never more than a petty state, often comprising little more than Jerusalem and the countryside for a few miles around. Christianity appears to be the old cult of Osiris grafted onto the more ancient cult of sun worship with Hebrew and then Greek-Roman name changes. The ancient Egyptian religions appear enlightening only in the sense that they show that Christianity is just another layer of folly glossing over more ancient folly. People did not like the idea of dying, so they went into massive denial. Acceptance of mortality is a major key to mental health and a good life while alive.

The best of Egyptian philosophy I already covered in An Ancient Egyptian Song with Commentary [February 22, 2008]. Breasted also follows the development of the idea of a supreme, rational god, Ptah, cumulating in "The Egyptian thus gained the idea of a single controlling intelligence, behind and above all sentient beings, including the gods. The efficient force by which this intelligence put his designs into execution was his spoken word and this primitive logos is undoubtedly the incipient germ of the later logos doctrine." [my italic]

When I was young I bought into some pop theories about how impossible it was to build the pyramids and other ancient monuments made of large stones. Breasted does not even go there. Apparently kings of Egypt thought nothing of mounting expeditions to far off quaries and bringing back large stones. It was a well-worked out system that lasted thousands of years and required no magic. It was simply a matter of organizing enough people to use the tools and skills available at the time.

The scope of this history is vast. The standard view numbered 27 dynasties in ancient Egypt; any one king's reign might have deserved a full book. Picking and choosing what to write about when so much history is available is the main task of the historian. Time, of course, destroyed most of the records and even many of the monuments from those ancient days. So some kings are barely mentioned, while others get a great deal of space in the book. One thing I like is how Breasted takes time to show that some kings had an awareness of what we call a good life, or civic virtue, consisted of. Prosperity then, as now, depended on to what extent the government looked after the welfare of the common people. When greed and corruption ruled, civilization declined. You can follow many cycles of prosperity and depression and their relation to civic policy in Egypt.

Recommended, but when I have a chance I'll read a more modern work covering this period for comparison.